“You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” Payola in the 1960s

Fats Domino may have invented rock and roll, but Alan Freed made it a hit. Freed, a disk jockey, worked at WAKR in Akron, Ohio, when he realized that there was a demand for rhythm and blues music (or R&B) in the area. He would make his fame by playing and marketing R&B, blues, and country music under the name of “Rock and Roll”. He became immensely popular and built a career off of promoting black rock and roll musicians, including Paul Williams, Tiny Grimes, and the Dominoes.

 “Alan Freed, sometimes called the father of Rock N’ Roll, was charged with 26 counts in two informations. He was accused of accepting $10,000 from a recording company in 1958 and with taking bribes of $20,650 from six other companies in 1958 and 1959” (Chicago Defender, 28 May 1960).

In 1959, Freed and other disk jockeys were investigated by the House Committee on Legislative Oversight for their involvement with a system called payola. Payola is, essentially, when a radio station or disk jockey takes money or other illegal bribes in exchange for playing certain music over the radio without publicly stating that it is sponsored airtime. Through various loopholes and lack of oversight, Freed and other disk jockeys made a fortune through the exploitation of black musicians. In addition to cash bribes, Freed also committed payola in the form of being listed as a co-composer of certain songs so he could receive royalties checks from them.

“Payola was how you got your records played,” stated Marshall Chess, President of Chess Records. “It was how you did business… back then it was totally open. ‘You help me, and I’ll help you,’” (Alan Freed and Payola).

It’s the same issue we’ve run across with minstrelsy. What do we make of a system that simultaneously builds careers for black musicians, and grossly exploits them? On one hand, it is far more progressive than the system of minstrelsy in the sense that it gave black musicians a career that was not so much about the color of their skin than their music, but Freed and others still left them only scraps of their surplus value. Even though record companies cannot use payola anymore, there still exist schemes that exploit musicians (pay-to-play, for example),  so we need to keep asking these questions into the present day.


“Alan Freed and Payola” Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975. Adam Matthew Digital. 2011. Web. Accessed 10 October 2019. http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk/FurtherResources/MusicScene/8FreedPayola.aspx?searchmode=true&docref=Alan%20Freed%20and%20Payola&

United Press International, “Arrest 5 Disk Jockeys Over Payola,” Chicago Defender. 28 May, 1960. Accessed through ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender. Accessed on 10 October 2019. https://search.proquest.com/hnpchicagodefender/docview/492944900/98CAE8EC624949C4PQ/2?accountid=351

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